Easter has always been a special time for me; growing up it meant Easter egg hunts in the morning and at least two more (at each set of grandparents) with special meals along the way, new clothes for church and lots of candy. As an adult I've gotten to share the fun of Easter with my family and especially my two nieces, but since moving to Missoula my Easter's have been rather uneventful...until yesterday.
I thought my Easter would consist of a leisurely morning, some yard work, some exercise and then a nice dinner with my second family, the Simmons. Little did I know when I woke up how much fun and what a great day it would turn out to be.
First I was happily surprised to get an invitation to breakfast from my little friends, Macy and Coley Schmidt (and their Mom, my friend and co-worker Jen). We watched ducks swim in the creek below and I got to hear all about what the Easter Bunny brought the two kids. Quite enjoyable and a fun way to start the day.
But then the next surprise; my friend Phil Gardner called asking for help. Phil never ceases to amaze...he's involved in the Missoula community in so many ways, is a great Dad, is well-read, finds time to exercise, is a well respected surgeon and is an all around great guy. As it turns out, every year Phil donates a dinner for 8 to his daughters' school for their fundraising auction. This year it was Indian themed and the folks who purchased the dinner asked if they could have it on Easter. So Phil rounded up his friend Rom, who is quite the interesting character himself, to prepare the meal and asked me if I'd help prep. I had no idea what an undertaking this would be or just how much fun a guy could have cutting up ginger, garlic, onions, tumeric, cilantro, eggplant, tomatoes and other bits of goodness.
We started at Noon, with Phil and I talking about the menu and waiting Rom's arrival. I made the mistake of bringing over some of my favorite Indian spices, not knowing Rom is not only a former restaurateur, but also of Indian descent and he makes his own Indian spice mixes from scratch. Yes, he made his own Garam Masala (pictured at right)using coriander, cumin, anise, black peppercorns, cardamom and other "secret ingredients"!
While Phil got busy cutting the lamb (for Lamb Masala), I started on the ginger, onions and garlic. Everything from scratch with no shortcuts and no recipes...this is Rom's way and I loved it. My hands still smell like this crazy mixture of peppers, garlic, ginger and onions, but it was worth it. Over the next 5 hours we cut, diced, mixed, tasted, seared, rolled, minced, simmered and strained our way through to some amazing dishes.
Under Rom's guidance we made saag paneer (making our own paneer along the way), Lamb Masala (pictured left), Dal Makhaani, Bhangan Bharta (pictured below, right)and Kheer for dessert. We also made the most aromatic saffron rice I've ever smelled and homemade Parantha bread.
But it wasn't just the cooking that made the day, although I've always enjoyed the business and mess of making a grand meal. It was everything...Phil & Julie's kitchen is a great place to cook, his daughters, Mabel, Lorraine and Stella (the paneer maker) are awesome kids I love to be around and there was just a great flow of energy throughout the day. There were great stories about Rom's family coming to the US and his grandfather, the who was assassinated in San Francisco during WWI. Stories about his relatives in India, about travel and dreams and about the joys of life. We also had plenty of time to discuss our shared views on the leadership of our country and what we feel are the dangers of religious fundamentalism (including Christian). Fabulous time.
Needless to say, II didn't want to leave. But they had to go serve the dinner and I had an invitation for traditional Easter ham dinner at the Simmons' house. I couldn't help but grin every time I lifted the fork to my mouth and got a waft of all the spices and smells emanating from my fingers!